Setting records is even better than breaking them.
AS THE OLD saying goes, records are made to be broken. But you gotta make them before anyone can break them.
That’s part of the reason why I’m riding shotgun in a specially prepped Subaru WRX STI during a pouring rainstorm on Romania’s National Road 7C, aka the Transfagarasan, a serpentine stretch of pavement in south-central Romania that has captivated the imagination of automotive enthusiasts the world over. So much so that Subaru decided it was well past due for someone to lay down a record time.
I await my turn to be tossed about in this STI’s newly installed passenger seat, on the slithering path up the mountain with veteran rally ace Mark Higgins at the controls. The weather has been pure garbage ever since the Time Attack Romania (Subaru’s name for its record-making extravaganza) officially got underway. As the rain pounds on the car, I wonder if this is the best idea.
Fog has also rolled in and out of the valley’s basin at the northern end of the road carved into the Carpathian Mountains. Bad weather has generally played havoc with most of the 52.4-mile attack route.
Higgins initially thought it would be straightforward enough to lay down a solid time after his reconnaissance run earlier in the week. But that run occurred in agreeable conditions. Although much of the route is heavily patched, with significant dips and ruts and various other imperfections, the surface itself isn’t all that challenging for someone with Higgins’ experience. Instead it’s more about navigating some 624 twists, turns, bends, and kinks.
Things seem solid enough as we launch from the start, tires spinning and spitting rain in our wake, with Subaru’s signature 2.0-liter turbo boxer-four tuned to 600 horsepower and 447 lb-ft of torque emitting the scream of a thousand pissed-off beehives.
As Higgins quickly gets comfortable with the tires and conditions, my helmeted head bobs, weaves, and pings off the safety harness thanks to his hammering of the brakes, the uneven tarmac, and the mix of slow hairpins and faster, straighter stretches. But then the fog rolls in—into Higgins’ field of view, that is. The fog outside the car was manageable enough, but when the windscreen itself fogs up, we have to slow dramatically, nixing the rest of the fun run.
There were also the usual problems that can crop up when you’re hammering the bejesus out of something like the specially built and prepped WRX STI Type RA, such as a balky boost controller (Subaru had to fly in a replacement) and an electrical issue that briefly stopped the car. Subaru commissioned longtime collaborator Prodrive Ltd.—the motorsports and technology company that won rally championships with Subaru and has recently enjoyed a successful partnership with Aston Martin in sports car racing—to build the special time-attack machine based on a U.S.-spec 2015 WRX STI. The car first saw action with Higgins at the wheel in 2016 when he took on the Isle of Man TT Mountain Course and set a record lap for a car, with an average speed of 128.73 mph. In 2017 Subaru did the Nürburgring thing, with New Zealand driver Richie Stanaway setting a four-door car record of 6:57.5. Then the WRX STI went up the hill at the Goodwood Hillclimb with Higgins back in the driver’s seat, where it finished third.
And now Romania and the Transfagarasan. Higgins jokes that Subaru’s public-relations team is “trying to kill me” with all of these crazy record runs. The Briton has been rallying for the better part of 30 years and has done a fair amount of stuntdriving work, including for the last three James Bond films.
The STI RA Higgins and co-driver Darren Garrod use to attack the Transfagarasan weighs about 2,425 pounds; the Prodrive crew set it up similarly to a rally car taking on a tarmac stage. Further revisions enable it to better handle the rigors and special nature and length of a course with elevations ranging from roughly 1,607 to 6,699 feet. Modifications include working headlights, a barometric sensor, and a larger 26.4-gallon fuel tank.
With the bad weather at its worst, it seems like these things always go this way, with some unforeseen hiccup causing trouble. But on the last attempt, everything finally falls into place. The weather sort of cooperates, the road is dryish, the car behaves, and Higgins doesn’t get fogged up. The run’s full 52.4 miles passes by in 40 minutes, 58.8 seconds. Average speed is 76.69 mph. Record made.
The gauntlet has been thrown down, the stake is in the ground, the time is in the books— and we’re out of clichés.
Oh, and meanwhile, a certain 35-year-old record at perhaps the world’s most famous racetrack has fallen, too. See Steven Cole Smith’s story, “’Ring Shattered,” beginning on page 14, for the behind-the-scenes story of how Porsche and Timo Bernhard reset everyone’s idea about what is possible at the Nürburgring Nordschleife.
Who’s got next? And where? And can we come along? AM